Roman Empire

See also: European history

The Roman Empire was the greatest ancient empire of Europe. At the height of its power in 117 AD, it ruled over considerable parts of Europe, as well as much of North Africa and the Middle East. It broke up into a western empire, ruled from Rome and an eastern (later, Byzantine) empire, ruled from Constantinople, which continued to exist until the 15th century AD. The Roman Empire left a huge and lasting impact on the civilisations of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and to this day Roman cultural influences continue to be evident in these civilisations.


Haec est Italia diis sacra.
"This is Italy, [land] sacred to the Gods." Pliny the Elder
The Roman Empire in 117 AD at the time of its greatest territorial extension

As with many great ancient civilizations, Rome began as a city-state, founded, according to tradition, in 753 BC as an elective kingdom. The Roman Republic was established in 509 BC. Besides wars with other powers (notably Carthage), the Republican era was characterized by conflicts between the old aristocracy (nobilitas) and the common people (plebs), some members of the latter rose to wealth and political prominence, from which they challenged the old system. Power was transferred to the Imperator in 27 BC, founding the Roman Empire, after almost a century of civil wars. In 395 AD, Theodosius I divided the Imperial administration by bequeathing the imperial office jointly to his sons: Arcadius in the East, to rule from Constantinople, and Honorius in the West, based in Rome. The Western Empire deteriorated due to continuing migration and expansion by the Germanic nations; it fell in 476 AD, when the Germanic Roman general Odoacer deposed the titular Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus.

The Roman Empire annexed many ancient civilizations, including Etruria, Carthage, Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt.

Roman heritage and revival

The Colosseum in Rome

Rome created a foundation for modern Europe, including Christianity, codified law (several Latin expressions, such as nulla poena sine lege - "no penalty without law" - and habeas corpus - "you shall have possession of [your own] body" - are still often quoted by legal professionals), Republican government, large-scale architecture, and the Latin alphabet. The Roman heritage was revived during epochs such as the Italian Renaissance.

Many later political entities have claimed to be the successor of the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was the part of the Roman Empire that survived throughout the Middle Ages, and the Ottomans, who conquered the Byzantine Empire, and captured its capital Constantinople in 1453, saw themselves as their successor. In fact some Ottoman rulers took to calling themselves Kaiser-i-Rum, which roughly translates as "Emperor of Rome". As the Byzantine empire fell, the Russian Empire claimed to be the "third Rome".

In AD 800, Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned as Emperor of Rome. His successors, the Holy Roman Emperors, held various levels of authority over Central Europe for the coming 1000 years; however, in the 18th century, the title had mostly sentimental value. In 1804, Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor of France to claim power over Europe, and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, also King of Austria, crowned himself Emperor of Austria a few months later. As he seized much of the Holy Roman Empire's territory the following years, Francis II dissolved the Empire in 1806; Napoleon was however defeated by an alliance including Austria. Napoleon III founded the Second French Empire in 1852, though as the newly unified Germany deposed him in 1870, they claimed Imperial status. The German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman Empires all collapsed at the end of World War I, putting an end to the continuous claims to succeed the Roman Emperors. Later attempts by Fascist Italy under Mussolini to "revive" Roman glory or by Bokassa to crown himself emperor of Central Africa in a presumption of Bonapartist as well as Roman continuation were highly unsuccessful and viewed with ridicule and skepticism abroad. That being said, the Latin language and the Roman ideals and styles are still used in contexts as diverse as science, the European unification or Government architecture.

Some of its remnants are still visible even 2,000 years after they were first constructed, with some still in use for the same or similar purposes they were built for. After the "fall" of the Roman Empire, most of its former territory entered a decline in technology, economy and literacy and, as such, many of its technological and engineering feats seemed superhuman and were indeed referred to by names such as "devil's wall" (for parts of the Limes in today's Germany). Some, including some stones from the Colosseum in Rome, were taken in the Middle Ages to build other structures, but there is still much that remains. To some extent, the Holy See preserves the ancient Roman heritage, and indeed one of the Pope's traditional titles, Pontifex Maximus, is the same title the High Priest of Rome (and later the emperor) held in pre-Christian times.

Get around

There is a great online resource, named Omnes Viae ("all routes"), compiled from the official Tabula Peutingeriana, that reckons distance (in Roman miles and gallic leagues) and travel days (on foot) between any given Roman towns. It's worth a try.


As the Roman Empire originated in Italy and held onto this territory for the longest time, most remnants are found there. However, Roman remnants can be found even in outlying provinces, and in fact some of the most impressive are Roman border installations built to keep out the "Barbarians" of today's Germany and Scotland. France, and to a lesser extent England, were also important provinces and as such still have a lot of Roman era remnants, including streets and aqueducts. Some Roman streets remained in use and in prime condition until the advent of the automobile that necessitated wider roads and hence many Roman roads were paved over.


Remains of Aosta's theater
Part of Via Appia Antica, the old Roman road from Rome to Brindisi
The ancient theatre of Taormina


The Pont du Gard, the aqueduct bridge near Nîmes
The triumphal arch of Glanum (10-25 BC)
Aerial view of Orange's Roman theater


Torre de Hércules in A Coruña
Roman Bridge in Mérida



Part of Hadrian's Wall, west of Housesteads




Trier's Porta Nigra






The Roman arena in Pula




The Roman theater of Plovdiv



Detail of a 2nd-century A.D. Roman mosaic of Medusa that was found in Piraeus and is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens


The Goths Column in Gülhane Park, Istanbul, commemorates a Roman victory over the Goths.


Due to the Syrian civil war, especially deliberate acts targeting antiquities and looting by some of the combatants, some or all of these sights may not be in their original state any more or even wholly gone. Due to the current situation Wikivoyage advises against any travel to Syria.



The remains of Caesarea Maritima's hippodrome


Ancient Roman Hippodrome in Jerash





Trajan's Arch at Timgad


A Roman mosaic of Diana leaving her bath, in Volubilis


Gladiator combat reenactment

Several museums as well as a number of privately organized groups offer reenactment, including Roman food or Roman dress. The historical accuracy of these things varies widely but is usually better than for "medieval" themed events. If you have a lot of time on your hand and/or are a scholar in that field you might even find yourself doing "experimental archeology" and cross the alps in full Roman era military equipment to shine a light on Roman military life.


The Roman tribal staple food was the puls, a thick pottage made of unground wheat, water, salt and fat, plus whatever vegetables and meats were at hand to be chopped up and added to the pot. Greek migrants on the 2nd century BC set up shop in Rome as bakers, introducing the concept of grinding the wheat into flour and baking it into bread. This practice slowly gained popularity, and by Imperial times, was prevalent. However, puls was ceremonially important for several Roman religious rites, and never disappeared.

Romans would eat their ientaculum (breakfast) at dawn and have prandium (more like a big snack) in the late morning. Both could be as simple as some bread dipped in wine or olive oil, plus olives, nuts and raisins - richer and foodier people had as well meats, eggs, cheese, honey and a wider choice of fresh and dried fruit. The day finished with cena ("supper", the main daily meal), in the early evening. Rich folk would finish their daily business at about 14h, then hit the baths and go home to have cena lying on couches (lectus triclinaris, plural lecti triclinarii) for hours, in the triclinium, the familiar Roman dining room made famous by paintings and movies. The meal starts with drinking preliminaries (comissatio) followed by salads and light hors d'oeuvre (gustatio), then the main courses (mensa prima) and fruits and dessert for last (mensa secunda). Romans had an idiom referring to a full-course meal, ab ovo usque mala, "from the egg to the apples", which came to mean "the whole story". The dining habits of the upper classes, and the decadence of Roman national values thus implied, are described and commented on by almost every Roman historian and social chronicler, from Cato the Elder (a hardcore xenophobic Republican traditionalist) to Tacitus (who was fond of comparing the Romans unfavorably to the Germanic tribes he writes about), and make for amusing reading.

Most of the members of the Roman elite were landowners, i.e. proud farmers, eager to consume and show off their own produce, to import and develop exotic crops and fruit trees, to store and preserve for winter; most of them had, as children, learned their letters and Latin from Cato the Elder's handbook of farming techniques De Agri Cultura. Pliny the Elder, in his books, discusses more than 30 varieties of olive, 40 kinds of pear, African and eastern figs, and a wide variety of greens and vegetables. It was considered more "civilized" to eat produce than hunted meat and mushrooms. Butcher's meat was an uncommon luxury; seafood, held in high esteem, and poultry were more common. Roman foodies would delight in eating roasted exotic birds (such as flamingos and peacocks). Aquaculture was sophisticated; there were large-scale industries devoted to oyster farming. The Romans also engaged in snail farming and oak grub farming. From the Eastern merchants they would buy black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and other "oriental spices" that were in high demand; some of them were worth their weight in silver.

A list of whatever food items were available to the Romans of any given period, according to geographic location, is easy to compile using online resources, and is a great conversation topic with local merchants and food connoisseurs, while in the field.

There is a famous cookbook in Latin called De Re Coquinaria ("About cookable things"), said by modern scholars to date probably from the 4th or 5th century AD, and attributed to the name Apicius, a famous rich gourmet contemporary to emperor Augustus. Whoever really wrote the book seems to have been particularly fond of sauces, as roughly 100 of the 400 recipes in his book are for sauces. The menus of places such as the restaurant inside the Caesar's Palace casino of Las Vegas are rather likely inspired by this book, if not outright based on it. Modern writers on Roman cookery often make a point of avoiding the Apicius recipes altogether, concentrating instead on content from Cato, Columella, Pliny and other classic sources.

Products similar to pasta were known in Rome under such names as lagana and itrion. There is no support for the legend that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from the Chinese Empire in the 13th century.

Some products which are today ubiquitous in the Mediterranean cuisines, were unknown by Romans. Most of them are crops from the Americas, such as tomato, maize, potato, avocado, squashes, pumpkins and chili peppers.

See Italian cuisine for contemporary food in Italy.


Roman mosaic depicting workers in a vineyard, from Caesarea Mauretaniae, now called Cherchell, Algeria
In Vino Veritas.
"In wine, [there's] truth." ancient popular Roman saying

To say that the central theme here is wine seems somewhat obvious. Romans were avid wine drinkers and traders, and are known to have influenced, if not started, every major wine-producing European enterprise, from Portugal to the Crimea. Most provinces were capable of producing wine, but regional varietals were desirable. In addition to regular consumption with meals, wine was a part of everyday religious observances. Before a meal, a libation was offered to the household gods. Romans made regular visits to burial sites, to care for the dead; they poured a libation at the tombs. In some of them, this was facilitated by a feeding tube built into the grave.

As in much of the ancient world, sweet white wine was the most highly regarded style. Wines were often very alcoholic, with Pliny noting that a cup of Falernian (the most celebrated and sung-about Roman wine variety, now extinct) would catch fire from a candle flame drawn too close.

Like in Greek culture, wine was drunk mixed with water, and sometimes flavored with herbs and spices. Drinking wine purum or merum (unmixed) was a mark of the "barbarian". Modern wine enthusiasts enjoy the wisdom of this ancient custom, and advise modern wine drinkers to consume one glass of water after each one of wine, which helps maintain mental focus.

Beer (cervisia) was known and widely consumed by Gauls and Germans, but considered vulgar, and a barbarous habit, among the Romans.

Go next

While many Roman remains are outside of cities, some cities that were founded or significantly influenced by the Romans still have Roman remains side by side with a medieval or early modern old town, so after you are done with the Roman era you can often walk into another part of town and see buildings from a totally different era.

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